By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
If you are a student of history and commerce, you recognize a clear pattern to the development of cities. In the beginning, most of them were founded on rivers — think Paris and the Seine, London and the Thames, New York and the Hudson.
Then railroads took over from rivers as a catalyst for development. In the United States, Chicago and Denver owe their existence to the proximity of tracks, rather than proximity to water. Thus began the transition from natural to industrial.
Today we are in the middle of the transition from the industrial to the digital, based on the rapid deployment of broadband technology. What will be the first major city based on digital technology? Is it Silicon Valley, in California? Is it Bombay? Is it Shanghai?
This is the first time that infrastructure is neither natural nor industrial, which rewrites the equations by which population centers are created. What does this transition mean for rural areas?
What Hath Broadband Wrought?
Indeed, most tech-savvy countries have programs in place for rural broadband. Europe has put in place new rules for rural broadband, as has England. Ditto for China and India. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included funding for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which is designed to develop and expand broadband services to rural and under-served areas and improve access to broadband by public safety agencies.
Pumping money into infrastructure is one thing; the more important question relates to results. How could broadband potentially change rural areas? Interestingly, the UK’s Guardian newspaper polled experts last month on the social and economic value of rural broadband. The responses were broad-based:
- It encourages online participate from multiple segments of the community.
- Social media is an effective tool for bringing together rural and geographically diverse communities.
- A greater sense of community through online communication opportunities could deter migration to cities.
The poll also asked for advice on improving acceptance. Suggestions included:
- Make use of community activists to encourage others to get online.
- Let rural residents develop and carry out broadband policies.
- Use varied approaches for different members of the community.
Interestingly, the responses focused primarily on the personal and social aspects of online communications, rather than the business aspects.
Pros and Cons About Impact and Uptake
That begs the question: what are the pros and cons of rural broadband investment?
From an environmental standpoint, there is a price to distribute goods across long distances, so there is a benefit to urban density. On the other hand, broadband has the potential to bring greater diversity of economic activity. For instance, if broadband access offers other economic sustenance for family members, other family members may still support rural-specific livelihoods such as farming.
From a social standpoint, families and friends may be further away, but distance no longer equals isolation. With broadband connections bringing telecommuting, videoconferencing, online entertainment, and social networking, citizens can finally overcome the tyranny of distance. People can finally divorce decisions about livelihood from location.
Still, questions dog rural broadband regarding feasibility and uptake. In early May, Australia temporarily suspended its ambitious National Broadband Network because of high potential costs — many relating to bringing broadband to the entire country, rather than just its major cities.
And if you invest in infrastructure in a rural area, is there evidence that it will either retain young people who might otherwise move away, or even attract people who are skilled to use it from other areas of the country?
Or is it possible that people who naturally gravitate to — or stay in — rural areas do so because they want a slower, less-connected lifestyle? Is broadband merely one more thing that they can do without? There are still some significant unanswered questions about the validity of rural broadband, and the question of “if you build it, will they come?” remains unanswered.